Is there a Shakespearean play more obsessed with privacy and surveillance than Hamlet? This is, after all, a story about a prince who stages an elaborate play as an opportunity to scrutinise his uncle for signs of guilt. Add to that a courtier who takes perverse pleasure in espionage and ends up killed in the act of voyeurism, and a paranoid king who surrounds himself with spies, and you have a play centred on the unhealthy tension between watching and being watched.
This is the central theme of the new production of Hamlet at the Almeida Theatre, directed by Robert Icke, and due to transfer to the West End in June. Countless Shakespeare productions have played with technology to modernise the text, with varying degrees of success, but few manage these anachronisms with the elegance and finesse of this version. Cameras abound, from the giant CCTV screens scattered throughout the auditorium, to the hand-held camcorders used to zoom in on the actors’ expressions in close focus. The message is clear: this is a royal family at the centre of the public eye, there is no escaping being observed, and there is always an audience.
If the technology is the most distinctive feature of this production, it in no way overshadows the acting. Andrew Scott is breathtaking as Hamlet – vibrant, dynamic and chilling by turn, and never repetitive, despite the lengthy soliloquies into the state of his own consciousness. Bringing freshness and surprise to a script which includes some of the most famous lines in English literature is always a challenge, but there is nothing predictable in Scott’s performance. The humour he injects, even in the play’s darkest moments, balance the tightrope between lunacy and everyday joking. It is impossible to tell when – if ever – Scott’s Hamlet actually submerges into madness. This production is the first time I have seen a Hamlet so able to pass off an air of normality – which, given the play is a tragedy about a vengeful suicidal prince who hallucinates his father’s ghost, is quite an achievement.
The rest of the cast is equally strong, particularly in their individual portrayals of madness. Juliet Stevenson’s Gertrude gives herself over to genuine terror at her son’s delusion and her husband’s crimes, Jessica Brown Findlay’s descent as Ophelia from cheery affection to total hysteria is heartbreaking, and in the final act Luke Thompson plays the bereaved Laertes as a man utterly possessed. And while the characters rage, grieve and murder one another, the eyes keep watching and the cameras keep rolling.
At a time when our every move is tracked, logged and published on social media, turning us all into mini-celebrities, there is something unnerving in watching these most intimate moments of anguish and despair in relentless close-ups. That discomfort is not an invention of the Almeida production – it is there in Shakespeare’s text (no one can watch the glee Polonius takes in his spying without feeling disturbed). The technical flourishes highlight and enhance what is already there, and juxtaposed with our 21st-century disregard for privacy (both others’ and our own), it makes for a powerful four hours. Expect the traditional Hamlet you know and love – fast-paced, lyrical, impassioned – in an updated framework that exposes some tragic lessons for today.
Following a critically acclaimed sell-out run at the Almeida Theatre, Hamlet, directed by Robert Icke and starring Andrew Scott, will be be transferring to the Harold Pinter Theatre, where it will show from 9th June to 2nd September 2017.
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